Headteachers say they are being left alone to make difficult decisions about teachers and pupils wearing face coverings – without sufficient guidance from the Department for Education (DfE).
The DfE guidance for schools returning in September says face coverings are not needed where pupils and staff are mixing in consistent groups.
However, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) says there is lack of clarity as to whether heads are able to implement new school rules, for example, that pupils and staff must at least wear face coverings some of the time, in corridors for example, in order to help to minimise the risk of spreading Covid-19 and provide reassurance.
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And it says there is uncertainty over how schools should respond if anxious teachers and pupils choose to wear face coverings in school after becoming accustomed to wearing them in other settings.
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at ASCL, said the union had received a number of calls from members about this "very unsatisfactory situation".
She said: “We are concerned that the government has passed the buck to schools on some important aspects regarding face coverings, and it would be helpful if it provided some further clarification to support schools in managing an unprecedented situation.
“Our understanding is that the government is not planning to say anything more on this issue, leaving school leaders to make the decision in their own settings without the benefit of advice to help guide their response.”
Meanwhile, the NASUWT teaching union says the government’s recent announcements requiring the wearing of face coverings on public transport and in shops has highlighted the need for similar protections to be in place in schools.
NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach told the Telegraph that the government’s guidance for schools was “now out of step with wider public health guidance” and that there was “a strong argument” that face masks should be made compulsory for secondary school children from September.
But lawyers warned today that schools that force pupils to wear face masks could face legal action for acting in an "absurd" manner.
The NAHT told Tes the government needed to keep the guidance “under regular review”, drawing on the latest evidence available, but said school leaders should avoid a blanket ban on face coverings.
NAHT director of policy, James Bowen said: ”Younger children, in particular, are likely to find it harder to wear coverings for an extended period of time.
“When it comes to school staff…If a staff member feels personally reassured and more confident in returning to fully a reopened school setting by being allowed to wear appropriate face coverings, then they should take this into account. However, they will also need to take into consideration the ability of the staff member to undertake their work with children and young people effectively.
Avis Gilmore, deputy general secretary of the National Education Union, said there was a “lack of consistency” with guidance on wearing face coverings in schools and in other public places, and that the advice for schools should undergo regular review. She said: "No member of staff or pupil should be prevented from wearing a face mask if they wish to do so and we anticipate that the majority of schools and colleges will respect this."
The DfE says face coverings are “not recommended or required” in schools because pupils and staff are mixing in consistent groups, and because misuse may inadvertently increase the risk of transmission.
Nor does Public Health England recommend the use of face coverings in schools, says the DfE.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We have set out the controls schools should use, including cleaning and hygiene measures, to substantially reduce the risk of transmission of the virus when they open to all children from September. This does not include the wearing of face coverings as we believe the system of controls laid out adequately reduced the risk of transmission to both staff and students.”